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From Yaakov Avinu's prayer for salvation from the hand of his brother Eisav, we can glean a great lesson regarding the trait of gratitude. Yaakov said, "I have become small from all of the kindnesses and from all of the truth that You have done with Your servant, because with my staff did I pass over this Jordan [river] and now I have become two camps (Gen. 32:11)." Herein, Yaakov is expressing how he is so utterly beholden to God for the great chesed, kindness of developing him into a large and prosperous family.
Let's review some of the verses from last week's parsha that describe the process of how this happened. "And Yaakov loved Rachel, and he said (to Lavan) 'I will work for you seven years for Rachel your younger daughter (Gen. 29:18).'" At the end of those seven years, Lavan (Yaakov's uncle!) deceives Yaakov by marrying Leah to him instead of Rachel. The result? "Finish the week [of celebration] of this one (Leah) and we will give you also this one (Rachel) for the work that you will work with me another seven years. And Yaakov did as such ..." (Gen. 29:27-28). Grand total? Fourteen years!
Just imagine, Yaakov had to work for 14 years (!) just to get married to his wife of choice!
Perhaps one may think that the work wasn't so terrible. Well, let's take a look at how Yaakov describes his experience: "This is now 20 years that I am with you, your sheep and your goats did not miscarry, and the rams of your flocks I did not eat. A killed animal I did not bring to you, I made up for it, from my hand did you demand it, [whether] stolen by day and [whether] stolen by night [I paid for it]. I was by day scorching heat ate me and frost by night, and my sleep moved [away] from my eyes (Gen. 31:38-40)."
Yaakov had to work very, very hard for his uncle Lavan.
And what about the wealth that Yaakov amassed? "And he (Lavan) said, 'define your pay and I will give it.' And he (Yaakov) said to him, '...do not give me anything, if you will do for me this thing - I will return to shepherd your sheep, I will guard [them]. I will go through all of your sheep today [and] remove from there any speckled and spotted sheep, and any brown sheep and speckled and spotted goats [that will be born from this point on] will be my payment' (Gen. 30:31-32)." The verses that follow then describe how Yaakov went through a thorough procedure of breeding spotted and speckled sheep and that through this process he amassed great wealth.(1)
However, even as Yaakov put forth his best efforts to be able to collect the payment that was more than rightfully his, Lavan made it almost impossibly complicated for him to do so. Lavan kept changing the terms of the deal at every opportunity. But Yaakov did everything he could to persevere; and in the end, persevere he did.
This all certainly makes Yaakov Avinu sound like the "lift himself up by his own bootstraps" type of a person. Look at how hard he worked to build his family and fortune! For 20 years he toiled endlessly to achieve this success.
Nevertheless, when submitting his entreaty God, Yaakov feels the need to excuse himself for being unworthy to make such a request; because he is already so greatly indebted to Hashem for all that Hashem has done for him in transforming him from a lone traveler with but a walking-staff to his name, into a mighty and prosperous family of two camps.
We need to seriously contemplate the implication of this outlook of Yaakov Avinu.
No matter how much effort we put into what we do, it is always by the grace of the Almighty that we reap the fruits of our labors. And more than that, "And you shall [constantly] remember God your Lord, for it is He who gives you strength to achieve success (Devarim 8:18)." Even the very ability to put forth effort is only by the grace of Hashem. As our Sages so aptly put it - "For each and every breath inhaled one is obliged to praise the Creator (Breishis Rabbah 14:9)."
1. As an aside, see the drasha of the Ri Ibn Shoiv (a talmid of the Rashba) on Vayeitzei regarding what we learn about proper hishtadlus in parnasah from the actions of Yaakov Avinu.